This guest post by Dr. Huma Ahmed-Ghosh, Professor of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University, engages the recently published article by Julie George, SSpS, in the Journal of Moral Theology.

In “Intersectionality at the Heart of Oppression and Violence against Women in Law: Case Studies from India,” Julie George, through extensive evidence, brings out the inequities that exist in the perceptions and rulings on domestic violence in India. The urgency of a framework of analysis based on the concept of intersectionality, especially in India, is demonstrated by the realities of ongoing and persistent hierarchies of identity markers especially in relation to the perpetrator and victim of sexual violence. For women in India, such an analysis is even more pertinent, since in the cases of domestic violence the female victims’ and male perpetrators’ intersectional identities of caste, class, religion, and ethnicity play an important role in the conviction process. India, like most countries globally, is very patriarchal in its social structure. India, though, has numerous factors that complicate issues of gender hierarchy, with caste and class playing important roles in gender hierarchies and violence against women. Historically and traditionally, caste hierarchies “permit” men of higher castes to sexually violate women from lower castes.  For Dalit women, such societal norms are layered with sexual and domestic violence within their own communities due to Indian patriarchal norms.

Irrespective of caste, class, religion, and ethnicity, issues of masculinity are dominant in gender relationships where women are perceived as mere sexual objects created to serve men silently. Even today, an overwhelming majority of marriages are “arranged” and the married woman moves into her husband’s patrilocal residence, living within an extended household. She is the outsider who is exploited for household labor (and often sexually as well by male family members who feel entitled to her body). Voiceless and dependent, she is unable to protest, and if she does try, she could be subjected to domestic violence, and in some cases killed.

George achieves a helpful comparison of Dalit women in India and Black women in the USA. Caste and color are distinguishable markers that are hard to suppress or hide. In India the surname is a giveaway, as is skin tone in the USA. For Dalits in India this creates a barrier that is hard to transcend. Coincidentally, and shockingly, this caste status hounds Dalits in the USA too. The past decade has brought to the forefront discriminations of Indians from lower castes, specifically Dalits, and the particular challenges they have faced as employees in the corporate world, tech industry, educational institutions, and the Indian community at large in USA and Canada. Continuing with George’s intersectional framework, one is not surprised by how violence against women is such a complex issue and reeks of race, class, caste and ethnic biases. The past few years have seen a rise in protests against caste discrimination in the Indian diaspora in the USA and Canada. This has led to the Toronto District School Board passing a resolution condemning caste discrimination and addressing such discriminations, similar to racism and sexism. In the USA in 2023, the City Council of Seattle also banned discrimination based on caste. In the Silicon Valley in northern California and other parts of the USA, companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, and Cisco have been cited for caste discriminations and taken to court. These cases smack of race discriminations in the West. I point out this situation in the USA to remain cognizant of the multiplicity of oppressions faced by Indians in India and in the West and therefore to emphasize that when layered with patriarchy, these situations of violence are not just domestic, but also issues of workplace violence too.

George uses the term “Brahmanical patriarchy” to recount cases of the lack of accountability and punishment in cases where Brahmans raped Dalit women. She does this to emphasize her point of intersectionality being a necessary tool to understand the legal implications of domestic violence in India. George tackles the complexity of Indian laws that are biased towards the higher caste, the Brahmans. She succinctly claims, “Systemic misogyny, caste, class biases, religious and political interests together protect and reinforce the impunity of power-holders” (120).

George is a nun and a lawyer working for an NGO named Streevani. Through her own experiences of being a woman and a religious minority she is able to empathetically analyze the marginalization of Dalit women in the discourse on domestic violence in India. Her analysis is further inclusive of the period of Covid-19 when women were confined in spaces with husbands where (globally) the world saw a dramatic increase in domestic violence. In India, sexual violence within the household and among hierarchical power plays is also a symbol of honor. In honor-based societies rape is not just about power and sexual violence but also about bringing about dishonor to the whole community. Combined with variables of purity and impurity in the caste system, honor is center stage where Dalit women especially become pawns in the hands of upper caste men.

Intersectionality is not only a necessary framework of analysis to understand Dalit women’s oppressed status in India—and globally—but is also a necessity for policy making and creation of appropriate legislation. Analysis of multi-layered identities must be part of how we create solutions to counter such abhorrent acts of violence.

Dr. Huma Ahmed-Ghosh is professor and former chair of the program in Women’s Studies at San Diego State University. A specialist in gender and religion, Dr. Ahmed-Ghosh is the co-editor and a contributor to two significant monographs in the field: Contesting Feminisms: Gender and Islam in Asia (from the State University of New York series Genders in the Global South, 2016) and Asian Muslim Women: Globalization and Local Realities (also SUNY Press, 2016).